There seem to be moments, if you continue striving, and live long enough, when suddenly events long incomprehensible appear, suddenly, to make sense. A little island of lucidity. Aha! So that’s why! Then you go on, and everything is just as much a muddle as ever before. Recently it became clear to me how the fact that I could not sell my very first picture book seventeen years ago brought me here to speak to you this evening.
I’m very glad to be here. I didn’t get to be a part of the inner world where books are made and come from till I was well into my forties, and so it is still one of the pleasant surprises of my life. I like being with book people, surrounded by book people. It’s a comfort, like being surrounded by books. Though I feel that now we book people are surrounded. Besieged. And by what? In part by bookstores — mega-stores, humunga-stores, stores so enormous, new words have to be invented to describe their hugeness — some of them made of electricity and pixels — and of course mega-stores need mega-publishers; vast complex communication entities materializing billions of units of product — another name for books -— to fill the yawning maws of the stores and the demands of mobs of clamoring readers. In this world of more and bigger bookstores, and bigger and fewer publishers, why do I as a book person feel besieged? Less happy, secure and at home? How did it happen that Walt Disney has become the author and illustrator of Winnie the Pooh? Wasn’t there a Milne? and someone named Sheppard?
I remember my first bookstore, the old Pickwick on Hollywood Boulevard, a long, long way from east LA, and so always a rare and special treat to go to. For all the years of my growing up, I thought it was, and it may have been, the only bookstore in Los Angeles. When I came to New York in 1957, it was the book stores, hundreds of book stores, each different and unique as the people that owned them, that as much as the museums, galleries, restaurants and jazz clubs, made the city magical. Now, in that city, there are many enormous, and very few small bookstores, and fewer still that carry old and used books. — new books are wonderful, but old books are maybe even more so, because of how, again and again, just the right one you didn’t even know you were looking for jumps off the shelf and into your hand — And children’s book stores, of which it seems just a few years ago there were so many, all over the country, having readings and Saturday events, how are they doing? I seem to have lost touch with them? Are they still there?
And are the books these mega-entities deal in the same kind of thing I’ve always known and loved? In a mega world, there still has to be a place for the small, the personal and the absolutely unique. I remember François Trufaut’s movie of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 where literate refugees form a world of screen watchers where books are illegal, live in hidden in the woods and each person memorizes a book — becomes a book – one person is Alice in Wonderland, another: Pride and Prejudice. And so on. But could it be that today, rather than literature having been outlawed, it’s been bought up and appropriated, so that Walt Disney, author and illustrator of Winnie the Pooh, will also become the author of Leaves of Grass, Walt Disney’s Ulysses will fill the windows of Barnes and Noble, and Walt Disney’s musical extravaganza, Good Night Moon, will pack ’em in on Broadway.
It was due in good part to Truffaut that I became, like Walt Disney, an author and illustrator. I was making films, animated and live, when I saw Truffaut’s 1970 film, The Wild Child. It was based on the true story of Victor, a feral child of eleven or twelve captured in the mountains of Southern France at the beginning of the year, eighteen hundred. He seemed to have been living in the wild for years, was completely asocial, unable to speak or even listen, and had no knowledge of humankind. A Gypsy boy Truffaut found on the street played Victor with an eerie yet compelling strangeness. He seemed to have just come fresh out of nature’s womb, like a new-born twelve-year-old. Trufaut himself played the young Dr. Itard who, in opposition to all the experts of his day, believed the boy was educable, and with the methods he created to reach the boy, invented special education.
The movie, filmed in black and white was small, intimate, tender and deeply thoughtful. I assumed that Victor reminded Truffaut of himself, who was a wild child of the Paris streets till taken in and nurtured by a wise and loving mentor. I saw in the film the story of all of us, born as little wild things who must be taught to be human beings, one of the most difficult things in this world to be. And yet we don’t want Victor to lose all his wildness, all touch with that other world we all come from and that he represents.
I was so taken with the film, its simple, austere passion, I had an urge to copy it, refilm it shot for shot, the way a painter might copy an old master. I didn’t, but ten or so years later, after I had done a bit of book illustration and came across a paperback of the screen play, I thought that the story might make a wonderful picture book, and so I did a dummy for it, my first original book, and began showing it to editors.
I got a full range of responses, from the editor that criticized it for being a true story told as if it were a fairy tale, which was my intention, to the editor who read it as I sat there and burst into tears at the end, which astounded me. But none of them bought it. I began to work on another story, a kind of humorous take off on the wild child idea: about a baby lost in a swamp and raised by a mother duck. I named the mother duck Leda, and realized I didn’t know enough Greek mythology to be sure if the original Leda was a swan or a lady that had some thing to do with a swan. And so I dipped into Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, and discovered, at the age of 45, the wondrous world of Ancient Greece, Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus and the myths as told by Ovid in his Metamorphosis. Out of this came another book, Tales of Pan — all the stories of the God Pan. The Metamorphosis led me to the selkie legends of the northern British Isles, and out of these came The Seal Mother, another book. And so out of my involvement with the Wild Boy, came all my other books, like boxes opening up out of boxes within boxes. And these other books were sold and published, which was very gratifying, and they gave rise to more books, but no one would take The Wild Boy. It was admired, but is it really a children’s story? Won’t it frighten them? How would we sell it, and to whom? And so on, till I finally read it to the wonderful writers work group I attended at Bank Street College, and someone suggested that maybe this story couldn’t be contained in a picture book, maybe it had to be a novel.
Well, I had had a lurking fear when I first began trying to write picture books, that eventually, like it or not, I would have to write a novel. It was what I most feared, and that it would have to be a novel about something adolescent and painful, and I dreaded it.
I put The Wild Boy away in the drawer we all have for such things, but it would not be forgotten. And one day I found myself writing a few tentative pages of what would become a five- or six-year odyssey into the life times and world of Victor and his mentor, Jean-Mark Gaspard Itard. And when the book was as finished as it was going to get, and finally found its way into the hands of Frances Foster, my wonderful editor at Farrar Strauss, who wanted to publish it, I dug the old dummy, now seventeen years old, out of the drawer, to show to her, thinking she might be interested in the origins of the novel.
She read it through as I sat there, looked up and said, “well this is wonderful, we’ll publish this also. In fact we’ll publish them simultaneously.”
For a moment I was sure she was insane, and told her once more how no one would publish it, and explained all their good reasons.
“If I had seen it seventeen years ago, I would have bought it then,” she said. “But I know the real reason you couldn’t sell it.”
” And why is that?” I asked.
“Because if you had, you would never have written the novel.”
And of course she was right. And I may never have written Arnold of the Ducks either, or The Tales of Pan or The Seal Mother, and I most likely wouldn’t be here tonight, and I’d feel bad about that.
Thank you for having me.
Mordicai Gerstein – 2004